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A Guide to the Mother Lode Country (1948) by C. Frank Brockman


The Mother Lode Country during the days of the gold rush produced things other than gold that were of importance to the nation. Many whose names were to be well known in later years “got their start” in this region at that time. Others, already well known, were attracted to this area and added their bit to the luster of its history by their presence.

Everyone is familiar with those two outstanding American literary figures —Mark Train and Bret Harte. Both of these men owe much to the background that they obtained here during their brief stay in the mines. Although it is difficult definitely to establish the exact locale of many of their stories which relate the Mother Lode Country they nevertheless gave us a clear and interesting word picture of life here at that time. Mark Train’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras Couny” and Bret Harte’s “Luck of Roaring Camp”—to mention but two are regarded as classics of their type and, like most of their works, relate to that area of the Southern Mines in the vicinity of Sonora, Angel’s, Chinese Camp, and nearby towns. Thus, this section can be regarded as the center of the Mark Train-Bret Harte country.

Columbia can boast of the fact that it was the virtual birthplace of the Mills fortune for here Darius Ogden Mills, co-founder of the Bank of California and father of the man who was, for a time, Secretary of the Treasury, operated a bank and assay office in the early ’50s.

Seeing the almost non-existent town of Sheep Ranch today one would hardly select it as a likely springboard for fame. Yet, during the gold rush George Hearst, father of William Randolph, lived and worked in this vicinity. Here he laid some of the initial stones in the foundation of his career which led to the United States Senate (1886-1893), the purchase of the San Francisco Examiner, and the eventual development of the Hearst newspaper dynasty.

The country ’round about Mariposa is rich in the lore of “the Pathfinder,” Colonel John C. Fremont, and his fabulous estate (Las Mariposas or the Mariposa Grant), within the original boundaries of which the town of Mariposa is located. Col. Fremont—soldier, explorer, first senator from California, and Republican presidential nominee in 1856—was one of the most colorful and romantic figures in America at that time. In the ’50s he was actively associated with the operation of his vast landholdings here which contained some of the richest gold deposits in the Mother Lode. The exact boundary of the Grant, and even its general location, was subject to early dispute but even after these facts were determined and confirmed his rights to the mineral wealth on his lands were contested by local miners. His claims were upheld by the courts but the litigation was long and costly and, at least partially because of this, his efforts to reap the anticipated rich rewards were in vain. Many of the legal battles concerned with the Mariposa Grant centered in the present Mariposa County Court House. Fremont himself established his home and headquarters for the operation of his property at Bear Valley.

Near Mariposa one also finds the town of Hornitos. Here, among other historic structures, stands a dilapidated ruin—all that is left of the store once operated by G. Ghiradelli. Here he launched himself on a career that was to establish him as a “chocolate king” and make his name a household word.

James D. Fair first operated along the Mother Lode in such towns as Shaw’s Flat, Angel’s, and Nevada City. Through shrewd analysis of varied mining opportunities he eventually placed himself in a position that, with John Mackay, enabled him to reap a rich harvest in connection with the Comstock Lode in Nevada. Shaw’s Flat is also glorified by the fact that John B. Stetson, whose name is a byword wherever men’s hats are mentioned, operated a store here.

Farther north one finds the town of Sutter Creek near which the rich Union Mine (later re-named Lincoln) was located. One of its principal stockholders was Leland Stanford, then operating a successful grocery store in Sacramento—the eventual development of a more modest venture of a similar character in the more remote town of Michigan Bluff. When the mine lanquished Stanford took over and prepared to liquidate, but he was finally persuaded to give the property another chance. It was a fortunate decision, for “lady luck” smiled. The rich lead was picked up again and the mine became a heavy producer once more, thus improving Stanford’s financial condition to the extent that he was able to continue broadening his interests and career which eventually led into many varied paths—as railroad builder (with Crocker, Huntington, and Hopkins), statesman, and founder of a great University.

It was at Placerville that J. M. Studebaker operated a blacksmith shop and turned to the manufacture of wheelbarrows which were greatly prized by miners for their durability. This proved to be a stepping stone to his wagon and carriage works (later established in the East), and eventually to the automobiles that today bear his name. Placerville was also the site of the grocery store operated by Mark Hopkins who eventually, with Stanford, Crocker and Huntington, became one of the “big four” hi the building of the Central Pacific Railroad. Here, also, Phillip Armour operated a butcher shop which was to serve as a figurative “leg up” toward his later success. as a packer of nationwide fame.

Grass Valley, to the north of Placerville, attracted the beauteous and notorious Lola Montez—actress, dancer, and one-time favorite of Ludwig, King of Bavaria—upon her arrival in California in 1853. Here she built a house which still stands, in which she lived for two years. One of her principal contributions during her residence at Grass Valley was her interest in a local youngster named Lotta Crabtree who, even as a child, gave promise of future theatrical greatness. Lola tutored her and aided in launching the stage career of one of the foremost American actresses of that time. Lotta’s Fountain in San Francisco commemorates her memory.

Perhaps at least one of the “bad men” should also be mentioned. If so, one cannot neglect the name of Joaquin Murietta, the fabulous and legendary “Robin Hood of the Mother Lode.” With a number cf his henchmen most noted of whom was his bloodthirsty lieutenant “Three Fingered Jack”, and their paramours, he operated throughout the region and rare is the town in this section that can not boast of its being the locale of some episode in his hectic and diabolic career.

California Highway 49: Number 49 is the route. Let’s Go!
[click to enlarge]
Number 49 is the route. Let’s Go!

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management